Review: The Bear Who Ate the Stars

We know, from the ancient Greek poet Archilochus by way of Isaiah Berlin, that “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Different tactics for survival, perhaps, or a way (or ways) of looking at the world. In her chapbook, The Bear Who Ate the Stars, Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach credibly knows both the many and the one, a hedgehog-fox of clarity and invention.

The one big thing is the thing that Dasbach can not escape: impermanence, perhaps, or dread, the running and sickness unto death. Her poems burn with illnesses ill-defined but brought to vivid life through the lens of magic realism. Lilacs burst through eardrums. Lungs fill with sawdust and cedar. Bruises are not bruises but plums. There is pain here, and fear. These are poems about what it is like to live in a body, and what it is like to love another whose body could fail at any moment, as easily as the power going out in the middle of a cold night.

Dasbach, however, does not falter in the face of the one big thing. In poem after poem, she offers the reader fox-like stratagems for escaping the trap. Medical diagnoses are broken down, syllable by syllable, until only their roots remain. Radiation breaks free from its reactor and chases soldiers and citizens alike across Ukraine, but Dasbach deftly turns this disaster’s mutagenic power back on itself, transforming the black plumes of Chernobyl into the titular ursine monster. Her chapbook braces the reader like a bleak fairy tale, asking us to “recall the worry: would he find his way / or fall, body glowing against the dark / like that child who fell out of the sky but / never came home again?”

Her poems speak powerfully of connections to beloved people and places, and so it’s fitting that she so readily harnesses the connecting magic of hyphens: “Bone-heavy,” “sleep-water,” “skin-prayer,” “hip-fire,” the Siberian “winter day-nights” that illustrate how extreme conditions can crush words together despite vast distances of meaning. Dasbach herself has traveled great distances as a Jewish refugee, and her poetry contains backward glimpses, both haunting and beautiful, of her childhood in Ukraine. What is so masterful about The Bear Who Ate The Stars is how the past and the present so easily breathe the same air:

But it is strange,
surprising even, to the child and lover
on the inside of my smile, that the Jew
and German both prefer a cold beer inside
a Soviet winter, and hold kosher
dark-chocolate-gelt in their palms
until they can color my childhood’s wallpaper
with a trail of guilty hand prints.

In passages such as this, Dasbach connects the world that was to the world that is to Olam Ha Ba, the world to come. And regardless of the grief (the one big thing) that the future may hold, the reader is nonetheless given a sense, as comforting as any form of fox-magic, that in memory there is a way back home, to be taken in times of need.

Michael Young,

Editor, Rust + Moth

More of Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach’s work can be found online at: